An offshoot of rock music’s independent underground scene took off in the late 1980s and developed a wide following in the 1990s – introducing audiences around the world to a style which became known as alternative music.
The term was coined to include bands that weren’t considered part of “mainstream” rock music, but has since been used to describe the music created by underground rock acts that goes on to see attention from the mainstream. For this reason, music considered to be under the alternative umbrella can differ widely – in sound, influence, and social context.
Still, many alternative bands write lyrics around shared social concerns, drawing on issues like depression, suicide, drug use, and environmentalism. Most of these lyrical influences came from the economic and social strains that the United States and the United Kingdom faced during the 1980s and into the 1990s.
While there is no defining musical style that can be attributed to every band under the umbrella of alternative sound, critics have tried to develop language to explain the genre with some accuracy. In 1989, the sound was defined as guitar music that drowns out the power chords of traditional rock, set alongside chiming riffs, fuzzy sound, and feedback squealed in. This style ranges from the gloomy, emotional sounds of gothic rock to the bright, jangling guitars of indie rock.
A key element to the rising success of the alternative music movement were zines and college radio airplay, as well as word of mouth. While this did lead to the label of “college rock,” it also led to the signing of some alternative bands like R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü. By 1989, the genre had taken off enough for bands to start booking cross-country tours.
As grunge bands like Nirvana started to break out of the underground scene with the alternative label, and Britpop began gaining fans overseas, alternative rock hit the mainstream hard in the 1990s – and many of these bands began enjoying immediate success. However, by the decade’s end, this popularity was starting to decline.
Grunge and Britpop were losing fans, but post-grunge helped create bands like Creed and Matchbox 20, and post-Britpop gave us Radiohead and Coldplay. Later in the 1990s and even into the 2000s, commercial success continued for many alternative artists – The White Stripes, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire, Interpol – as well as a number of post-punk inspired groups like The Killers and Modest Mouse.